Hosting a hackathon can be an exhilarating experience, one that renews your faith in humanity (your mileage may vary). It can also be intimidating when considering all the factors that need to fall into place for an event to be a complete success. This ‘guide’ is intended to help you get your hands around organizing a successful hackathon contest. I hope this is enough to give you the confidence you need to pull the trigger on putting together an event.
Depending the size and scope of the event, you will should allow at least 5-8 weeks to plan and market the event.
This is the unifying trait of each entry. In some cases, it’s a vendor-specific API or tool. In others a case, the only requirement is that it is a mobile application. Either way, this is the purpose of your hackathon; this is the ‘Why are we doing this?’ question.
Space and Equipment
Depending on the anticipated size of your event, you will need a room to hold 25 – 100 people comfortably for the duration of the event. Ideally the location should be easily accessible by attendees. Be sure to send details on parking, lodging and public transportation in advance of the event.
In terms of time and day, I found that holding a hackathon towards the end of the work week or on the weekends seems to work the best. This may differ in some cultures or countries.
In addition to the space, you will need the following equipment and facilities:
- An LCD projector and screen.
- A laptop computer for presentations.
- 5 – 10 tables (round tables are preferred to encourage interactions).
- Enough chairs for all attendees.
- A power strip for each table.
- Strong Internet connectivity.
- At least 2 whiteboards and enough markers and erasers.
- Name tag stickers (encouraged but optional) – this helps attendees get to know each other and break the ice.
- A camera to capture the event.
- Microphone (optional, but depending on size of event, may be necessary for any speakers or announcements).
- Some toys for a diversion. Some great ideas for this are a TV setup with a Wii or Rock Band.
Prizes and Categories
The number and types of prizes you offer is going to be a determining factor in the number of teams you attract. While there is generally a small number of developers that will compete regardless of the prize pool, you will get a greater number by adding incentives.
In addition to prizes, another important factor will be the number of prize categories. Contests with one prize for Best Overall will not be as attractive as a contest with categories for Best Overall, Best Design, Best Idea, etc. It comes down to increasing the odds that a developer will win something. Regardless of the number of categories you have, be sure to clearly define what it takes to qualify in that category. For example, if the category is Best Student submission, clearly define a student. Is it half of the team members? Does a part-time student count? Making this clear in the beginning will save trouble later.
The types of prizes will vary by the developer audience, but it’s our experience that gift cards, devices, and cash are always welcome.
A hackathon contest is just that, a contest. As much as it is meant to be fun, the developers are competing with each other and will expect a level playing field. For this reason, you should consider defining a clear set of rules that every contestant must abide by.
When defining the rules, try think of the various situations that might arise, and the loopholes that certain developers might try to exploit. For example, should teams be allowed to build parts of their entries before the event? Are third party software components allowed? Can teams win in more than one category?
Lastly, make sure rules are explained at the beginning of the event, and then made available for teams to review later.
Here is a short list of rules I have used in past events:
- Entries may only win in one category.
- Applications should not be under development prior to the contest kickoff. Pre-existing code libraries and artifacts are allowed, but the spirit of the event encourages participants to build what they can in 36 hours.
- All Hackathon applications must be registered for the hackathon itself, with at least one primary contact listed.
- The development tools, frameworks or applications focus is entirely up to the participants.
- Participants are expected to bring all tools and software necessary to build their entry. Organizers will provide caffeine and power strips, but you might want to bring your own.
- If a category has no entries, that category becomes 1st (or 2nd or 3rd) runner-up to the best overall.
- Rules are subject to change at the discretion of the Hackathon coordinators.
Prizes, food and, in some cases, a space to hold the event, will cost money. You could charge developers a fee to participate, but this could lower the number of developers that enter the contest.
Another option is to reach out to sponsors for contributions. Many businesses in and around the technology field understand the value of participating in funding these types of events because it puts their brand and message in front of their core customer base. You should also reach out to local restaurants and coffee shops for food and drink items. They are generally very open to participating in exchange for some advertising.
Be sure to give yourself enough time to get sponsors in board. First, it can take time to find the right person within an organization to approve a $500 or $1000 sponsorship fee. Getting to this person could take weeks. Secondly, sponsors want to maximize the return on their investment in the event. Their return is having their logo splashed all over your website and printed materials. Few companies will pay to have their logo seen for 3 days. The more time you can give their logo visibility, the more attractive the sponsorship will seem to them.
In addition to logo placement and co-branding, there are other incentives you can offer potential sponsors:
- Sponsored Categories – Create a special award category, or brand an existing one, such as The Company Name Best Design award. You can also incorporate the sponsor into the category itself. For example, you have a category for the Best Use of Google Maps.
- Guest Judges – Offering them a spot on the judging panel to get them engaged in the contest itself.
- Floor time to pitch their products or services – At the kickoff of the event, you might offer the sponsor a 5-minute window to address the participants. However, be careful not to go much beyond a 5-minute allotment since the developers may get annoyed at sitting through an infomercial.
- A table or booth at the event.
Ideally, these are people that are known to the community of developers that will be participating and come from a wide variety of disciplines, such as technical, business or marketing, etc. There should be 3 or 5. I generally advise conference organizers to offer these spots to sponsors or speakers as another incentive for their involvement.
It seems improbable, but the people that compete in these events can build their entries in less than 24 hours. Don’t be afraid to impose limits since it’s this single constraint that has the most positive impact on creativity and innovation.
Once you have decided on the timeframes you are working with, make sure the event schedule is very clearly laid out and understood by all participants. Key milestones will be meals, code freeze and presentation time. Here’s a example of a schedule:
- Saturday 9:00am – Kickoff party (rules, meet/network, app planning)
- Saturday 12:00pm – Lunch.
- Saturday 5:00pm – Dinner. Xbox Tournaments
- Saturday 8:00pm – Coding continue through the night.
- Sunday 2:00pm – Code Freeze.
- Sunday 3:00pm – Judging/Awards
Another important component of the schedule is the allotted time for presentations. Establish limits early and be consistent. If you have only 60 minutes to get through 12 team presentations, then each team will be given 3 minutes allowing for a 2-minute transition between teams. It seems like a very short window to present, but neither the judges nor the guests want to endure 3 hours of rambling demos. 3 minutes is enough time to walk through a demo, but is NOT enough time to introduce everyone on the team and recite their biography. We can’t stress enough the importance of communicating this fact to the teams early on, so that they can plan an efficient presentation.
If the event is covering the food, the teams would need enough food and drink to cover them for the duration of the event. Pizzas, snacks, beer, soda and energy drinks are perfect for the hackathon crowd, but include healthy options as well. With 20 teams and 60 developers, expect this to run between $800 and $1200, depending on whether there is an overnight portion. The focus should be on coding, learning, and networking, so practical food is best.
If the teams are responsible for their own food, be sure to create a list of options in the area, or gather some delivery and carry-out menus.
You can also share the cost with your attendees by charging a food fee. If you’re doing this, make it clear in your messaging.
Once you have put together the elements of a great contest, you will need to spend some effort marketing the contest and communicating the details to the developer community. For more details on how to do this, see the section titled “Marketing Your Event”.
The power of a cool goody bag never ceases to amaze. Developers love getting t-shirts, stickers and flash drives, and sponsors love giving them away. Remember to ask your sponsors if they contribute these types of items.
If your hackathon is running in parallel to a larger conference, encourage the conference attendees to stay for the hackathon presentations. The teams get a big charge out of presenting to a larger crowd, and most people that sit through hackathon presentations come away with a huge charge of excitement at having witnessed innovation at warp speed.
If your hackathon is a standalone event, you do not have this audience built into event and you will have to create it on your own. One of the easiest ways to do this is by offering what I call ‘Programming’, or a program of content that people not competing would want to come to see. For example, you can schedule a lecture on any buzz worthy topic (emerging mobile trends, location-based services) just prior to the hackathon presentations. This could attract an audience to the event just in time for the hackathon presentations.
Best of Luck!